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Farmers cannot be the forgotten heroes of the coronavirus pandemic

Concerns about mental health amongst farmers and those in related fields persist and are intensifying, says Tessa Corina | PA Images

Tessa Corina | Dods Monitoring

4 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified the uncertainty and fragility of the conditions within which farmers operate.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused us all to become acutely aware of our own mental health, as a “new normal” has emerged. In the UK, there is sharp focus on the mental health of keyworkers supporting the nation in an array of fields such as the NHS, social care and education, but one industry’s contribution that should not be overlooked is the farming and agricultural workforce.

Concerns about farmers’ mental health are not new. Globally, farmers are subject to several year-round occupational stressors, ranging from climate variability and severe weather-related disasters, to financial pressures and isolation, which can severely affect mental health. Specifically in the UK, farmers have been dealt a bad hand in recent years, having faced devastation from flooding, media scrutiny around livestock farming, the constant threat of bovine TB, and constant concerns about their future post-Brexit. Whilst these factors remain key issues, the coronavirus pandemic has amplified the uncertainty and fragility of the conditions within which farmers operate.

Seasonal labour

Concerns around levels of seasonal labour also predates the pandemic, and concerns have been raised by those within the industry throughout the Brexit debate. UK seasonal farming has been chronically understaffed since the UK voted to Leave and the value of the pound fell. As has been widely documented, an estimated 70,000 seasonal workers are required throughout the year, and around 90 percent of those are from outside the UK. But with restrictions on travel due to coronavirus, farmers in the agricultural, horticultural and dairy industries in particular are reporting severe labour issues

The Government recently launched its “Pick for Britain” campaign to mobilise a land army of British pickers to help fill farm vacancies. This did not come without concerns from farmers, as many seasonal workers are normally returnees, arriving at the start of the season fully trained in the necessary skills and machinery to hit the ground running. By stark contrast, training new UK recruits can be costly and initially result in lower productivity. Furthermore, recent reports note that, following tens of thousands of initial sign-ups, just 112 people were hired by UK farmers last week. Many applicants cited that they could not commit to the full length of the contract, farms were too far away, or they had caring responsibilities and therefore could not work long hours.

Change in consumer demand

Changes in consumer demand during the coronavirus pandemic, with a move from out-of-home eating to more meals eaten at home – an estimated 500 million more per week – has resulted in some farmers losing their market overnight. This is down to difficulties in redirecting food produce once destined to the foodservice sector, as it been noted that consumers often wont replicate the meals that they would have had out of home, and there are issues with repackaging foods for retail. The impact on dairy farmers has been widely documented with videos of many having to pour away milk – an estimated 1m litres worth - along with the effects on the meat and horticulture sectors. Further to this, farmers have been faced with an increase in the theft of animals by criminals seeking to “cash in” on public concerns about food shortages.

To compound the challenges, the instruction by government to close B&B accommodation and farm cafés amongst other restrictions, and the subsequent loss in public demand, has also impacted farmers who have diversified their sources of income. These diverse streams of income are often vital to small farms’ survival, as many do not make a profit from their farming activity alone, so the financial consequences of this collapse will undoubtedly impact many in the sector.

Public rights of way

Another area that is less recognised as impacting upon farmers is the use of public rights of way during the pandemic. As the public take more exercise in rural areas, walking across land, through farms and opening gates with bare hands, there is an increased possibility in the transmission of coronavirus. This has caused an increase in farmers’ and landowners’ concerns about their own and their families’ health, adding pressure during an already difficult period.

The essential work of farmers must not go unsupported

Concerns about mental health amongst farmers and those in related fields persist and are intensifying. The unprecedented and unexpected pressures of coronavirus threaten further the mental health of those playing a crucial role in providing food for the nation. Greater attention needs to be paid to the impact of this pandemic on our farmers, and the government must remain transparent whilst intensifying efforts to understand and support their mental health, as well as provide practical, often financial, assistance in the long term.

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